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Toasting literature in the land of ice and fire

The Icelandic countryside, part of the IWR.   | Photo Credit: Puja Changoiwala

The Icelandic word for stupid is hemskur,” said the Nordic nation’s President, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, welcoming us to the Iceland Writers Retreat (IWR) at his official residence, Bessastaðir. “It essentially means a person who has never travelled. We need to travel — get inspiration from all over the globe.”

He goes on to explain that Bessastaðir welcomes all people with an interest in literature. “Literature connects us. Books, words can be so powerful, and we need to use them as a force for good.” According to Reykjavik City Council, almost no country in the world has as many books published per capita as Iceland. It is reported that one in 10 Icelanders is a published author. From medieval times, literature and folklore have been integral to the country’s national identity. So it’s no surprise that it’s the country’s heads of state who welcome IWR participants.

Earlier this year, I attended the week-long retreat, known to be one of the best in the world. It took place in the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik. A combination of writing workshops and cultural tours brought together 110 writers from 17 countries, men and women aged from 28 to 76, each harbouring a shared love for the written word. Each of us was in this tiny nation in the middle of the North Atlantic to become better wordsmiths, to escape, and some, to heal.

Almost poetic

I met authors who’ve published multiple books, and those who’ve only maintained private journals. I met writers who savour the art of writing, and those who write to nurse their reality — writers of circumstance. An American woman, who worked with an Afghan think-tank for a decade and witnessed multiple bombings and the kidnap of her colleague; a Bangladeshi blogger who fled to Iceland to escape persecution from extremists back home; an Indian-American activist, who experienced multiple physical and sexual assaults in his Indian boarding school.

It’s almost poetic romance, the idea of a writers’ retreat in the land of ice and fire. The Scandinavian nation, gorgeous in an unconventional manner, is home to just 3,40,000 people, its landscapes untouched and dotted with striking contrasts — stretches of yellow grass juxtaposed with black igneous rocks from centuries of lava depositions, golden basalt caves in the backdrop of black sand beaches with boulders of ice adorning their shores, and thundering waterfalls next to silent seas of snow.

The country’s beauty, Icelanders believe, works as a muse. There were writing workshops at IWR, conducted by Pamela Paul, author and editor of The New York Times Book Review, and Craig Davidson, whose novel Rust and Bone was made into an Oscar-nominated feature film of the same name, among others.

The workshops were rooted in the nuts and bolts of writing — creating captivating anti-heroes, sensory writing, plotting non-linear fiction, writing to inspire, writing humour, becoming another person when writing, learning how to outline your novel, and so on.

Eliza Reid, founder of the retreat, says, “We like to see IWR as the beginning of something for our participants — a network of like-minded people, which fosters communication around writing among creative minds from all over the globe, and eventually, gives way to great literature.” IWR was a toast to literature — a seven-day carnival that celebrated the art of writing. I don’t believe it found me all my answers, but it did leave me with the right questions.

The Mumbai-based journalist is the author of The Front Page Murders: Inside the Serial Killings that Shocked India.

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Printable version | Jul 28, 2021 4:05:09 AM |

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